John Hancock signed his death warrant that day.
In April 1897, John Hancock and Winifred “Winny” Myers, along with Myers’ 6-year-old son, set out from Perris, California, for Salt Lake City, Utah, in a miserable excuse for an outfit drawn by four inferior horses. One of their animals gave out at Daggett, California, but Hancock acquired another “plug” and continued on. When they could go no farther, Hancock took a job at a ranch in the Pahrump Valley of Nevada.
Hancock had been working on the ranch for three weeks when Dr. George Engelke, a veterinary surgeon, and Pete “Canadian Joe” Edmiston, his driver, arrived from Los Angeles in a first-class outfit drawn by a fine team, accompanied by a racehorse and two bloodhounds. They were on their way to Ogden, Utah, where Engelke planned to surprise his sister and mother, whom he had not seen in years. Hancock decided it was time for him to leave with Winny Myers and her son, and Engelke did not object to the trio traveling with him. Before leaving the ranch in mid-May, Hancock stole a revolver.
Hancock brooded over Engelke’s disclosure that no one expected him at Ogden and that he had been quite successful at his practice in Los Angeles. On the third day on the trail, May 18, Hancock shared his thoughts with Myers. “Winny, I’m broke, and I think that Engelke has a lot of money on him. I’m going to kill them, take their money and their team, and leave ours on the desert.” Myers pleaded with him not to commit murder, and he seemed to weaken in his resolve. That evening, Engelke chose a campsite, but Hancock encouraged his well-to-do traveling companion to keep going, until they found a secluded spot in a small basin surrounded by sand dunes.
The wagons were positioned 6 feet apart, and all parties turned in early—Engelke and Edmiston sleeping near their wagon, and Myers, her son and Hancock sleeping near theirs. Hancock rose often during the night to check on the animals, so Myers was not concerned when Hancock got up again a little before 3 a.m. But a peculiar noise roused her, and she soon witnessed a nightmarish scene. Hancock, ax in hand, stood over their two traveling companions, both of whom were bleeding from head wounds. He had crushed their skulls with the blunt end of the ax, but the men were not dead, so Hancock pulled his stolen revolver and shot each man twice. When they continued to moan, he pounded and slashed at them with the blunt and sharp edge of the ax until they finally fell silent. The two bloodhounds went to the dead men, sniffing about and licking at the wounds, so Hancock used his last two bullets to kill the dogs.
Hancock ordered Myers to help him load the dead men and dogs into their old wagon. The murderer then drove the bodies some distance from the camp amid the sand dunes. When he returned, he told Myers he had buried the remains. Next, Hancock sorted through the goods in each wagon, keeping everything they could use or sell and packing it into the good outfit. He put the rest into their old outfit and set it ablaze before setting out toward Salt Lake City. At Pioche, Nev., Hancock sold the racehorse.
Hancock traveled with Myers and her son for more than a year, first to Salt Lake City, then to Portland, Ore., and finally back to southern California. In Utah, John passed Winny off as his sister; everywhere else he introduced her as his wife. Myers tried to get away from Hancock, but he watched her every move. Hancock eventually forced Myers to get a job in California; it is unclear where, but presumably in Perris, where Hancock’s mother and sister lived. One day John went to Winny’s place of employment and attacked her for reasons unknown. One of her co-workers, a Mr. Gross, stood up for her and received a serious gash from Hancock’s knife for his chivalry. Hancock fled to avoid arrest, and Myers also left Perris, traveling to Los Angeles with Gross, whom she later claimed to marry. When she told her new “husband” of the ghastly double murder in the desert, Gross encouraged her to tell authorities.
Hancock learned that Winny had revealed his crimes and decided to beat it out of the state. To get a stake for his escape, he robbed a store in Santa Ana. Hancock didn’t get far. Lawmen soon arrested him, and he was indicted for robbery. To try to avoid extradition, he pled guilty before the facts of the double murder in Nevada came to light. On November 28, 1898, Hancock was at the Southern Pacific Railroad depot, awaiting transfer to San Quentin Prison, where he had been sentenced to serve 10 years. Extradition proceedings had been initiated, but Nevada would have to wait; California Governor James Budd refused to hand over the prisoner until Hancock had served his sentence for robbery.
His prison term ended early, but that was not good news for Hancock. He was released into the custody of Nevada lawmen and taken to Pioche for prosecution. Hancock told Sheriff H.E. Freudenthal where the bodies were buried and provided a map, and the sheriff was able to unearth the larger bones and skulls, which had survived scavengers. Thanks to Winny’s testimony, along with the physical evidence and Hancock’s own confession, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to hang. The usual appeal and application for commutation were denied.
In 1901 the Nevada Legislature had ordered that all legal executions from 1903 on would be conducted in the state prison near Carson City. No funds had been authorized for construction of a gallows; regardless, one was constructed at the south end of the shoe shop, which offered thick, whitewashed stone walls and a high ceiling. Workers laid a strip of carpeting from the door to the foot of the gallows and set out seats for prison officials. On September 8, 1905, 39 invited spectators were admitted to witness the first execution at the prison.
When the moment arrived for Hancock’s walk to the scaffold, Warden J.L. Considine and the Reverend B.J. Darneille were first to enter, followed by the condemned man, his arms pinioned and head bowed. Three guards brought up the rear. Hancock seemed unconcerned until he lifted his eyes and saw the dangling noose. He paused and asked to see the audience; when the warden hesitated, Hancock claimed it as his right. He slowly scanned the faces, making several faint signs of recognition, until he saw Dr. W.L. Berry. What Hancock said to Berry was not recorded, but the remarks caused the doctor to lose his composure and cry uncontrollably. The condemned man then ascended the stairs and stood on the trap. Warden Considine held the death warrant, but Hancock waived the reading. Dr. J.J. Circe and Dr. S.J. Sullivan of Virginia City joined Dr. Berry beneath the gallows.
Following prayers, guards pinioned Hancock’s legs, adjusted the black cap and cinched the noose around his neck. The Rev. Darneille delivered the benediction, ending with, “…and may God have mercy on your soul.” At 10:41 a.m., the trap was sprung. Everyone watched his clenched hands, as Hancock had said that if he were conscious after the drop, he would relax one of his hands. Both remained clenched.
Dr. Circe first reported no heartbeat, but then a pulse returned and fluctuated for six minutes. Thirteen minutes after the drop, Dr. Circe pronounced death, and John Hancock’s body was cut down soon after. A postmortem examination revealed that the neck had been dislocated at the first cervical vertebra. On Saturday, the day after the execution, the reverend conducted an Episcopal funeral service. Interment followed at 1 p.m. in the prison burial grounds.
Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.